Empty Marketing Slogans Fuel $40 Billion in Sales

A new study tries to pinpoint how much money is earned by attaching particular labels like “natural” and “organic” to food packaging and finds that these mostly meaningless marketing buzzwords generate tens of billions of dollars in profit while telling you almost nothing about the product.

Nothing makes Americans buy a food product quite like the fabulously ambiguous word “natural.”

The top 35 health claims and food labels include words most anyone who has been to a supermarket in the past five years should recognize—ones like “natural,” yes, but also “organic,” and “fat free,” and “carb conscious,” and “100 calories.” These phrases helped the food industry sell more than $377 billion worth of masterfully marketed food items in the United States during the past year, according to data from market research firm Nielsen…

Take food labeled with the word “natural,” for instance. Actually, remember it, because it’s probably the most egregious example on supermarket shelves today. The food industry now sells almost $41 billion worth of food each year labeled with the word “natural,” according to data from Nielsen. And the “natural” means, well, nothing. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t even have an official definition or delineation of what “natural” actually means…

It’s hardly the only misleading adjective the food industry is swinging around these days. The word organic, while a bit less nebulous, still means a good deal less than one might think. Several others, including ones that reference antioxidants, proteins, calcium and other vitamins and minerals, are confusing consumers by tricking them into believing certain food products are healthier than they actually are, a recent study found.

I think this really speaks volumes about the human race, how easily manipulated we are by advertising. They sell us things we don’t need to fix problems we don’t have and convince us that it’s working even when it isn’t. Hell, we use marketing to sell wars. I’m just gonna leave this here:


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  • Kevin Kehres

    Arsenic is all natural. So is cyanide.

    Plutonium — not so much.

    So, when someone markets something as being “all natural”, I make the assumption that it contains no plutonium. And that’s about as far as I’m willing to go.

  • Trebuchet

    Gluten Free! Because, you know, gluten is somehow deadly. (For a very small percentage of the population.)

    I actually saw a large Gluten Free sign on a product display a couple of weeks ago. The product was bottled water. Which is a scam in its own right.

  • dannorth

    Food will be bought anyway so to say that it fuels a 40 billions $ dollars business is a bit misleading.

    Still these are empty words that can influence choices, lead someone to pay more for a product or lead someone to believe something is healthy when its not, like trans fat free potato chips.

    Meh, its the game as making you believe some brand of beer will make you young and cool or a car will make sexy. I tried it doesn’t work (maybe a pickup truck will ).

  • Mike Morris

    I was working in India several years ago and was encouraged to drink bottled water and even use it to rinse my toothbrush so I saw a LOT of bottled water. One brand label in particular caught my eye: Diet Water.

    Insane enough that I kept one of the labels. Turns out that the company name is Diet but that highlights even more the absurdity and ubiquitous nature of marketing. ‘Natural’ may be a hot ticket but ‘Diet’ has to be in the top 2.

  • vargostatten

    Modern marketing was invented by Edward Louis Bernays who used the ideas developed his uncle Sigmund Freud to exploit the unconscious fears and desires of consumers.

  • “Organic” is not a meaningless buzz word… yet, although big ag is striving to make it so. Meanwhile “organic” should not be on a label unless the contents are organic. As for the word ‘natural’, that has long since lost any relevance to health in the food processing industry, since the erstwhile guardians of our well being, the FDA and USDA, are controlled by corporate interests. As is our president.

  • Taz

    The one I don’t have a problem with “100 Calories”. It’s clear, accurate and helps those of us who struggle with portion control.

  • Like the jar of kosher dill pickles that was labeled as Gluten and Lactose Free… I kid you not, they have them at Wegman’s.

  • Larry

    Le Expensivé Eau du Bouteille – Organic, All-natural, no caffine. Now with zero calories!

  • dugglebogey

    This explains “Natural Light” beer.

  • As Richard Feynman once said, marketing is one of the few inherently immoral professions, since it’s all about selling things as better than you know them to be.

  • Le Expensivé Eau du Bouteille

    Eau du Robinet is even easier to prepare. But I prefer Doctor Oz Instant Dehydrated Water (just add water!) it’s better for you.

    Joking aside, I am fond of “carb water” – the glaceau sugar/color/flavor water. And I’ve noticed that now it says “naturally sweetened” all over it. The natural sweetener? Cane sugar!

  • eric

    “organic” should not be on a label unless the contents are organic

    Most human-produced food additives are chemically “organic.” You are falling for exactly the problem Ed points out – you think the term means more than it does. Specifically, here, you probably think it has somethnig to do with (examples) whether pesticides are used or whether beef is fed whole grains, but it doesn’t. Here is a direct quote from the FDA web site – copy it into google and google it if you don’t believe me:

    “Does FDA have a definition for the term “organic” on food labels?

    No. The term “organic” is not defined by law or regulations FDA enforces”

  • Synfandel

    Personally, I love the claim that something “contains no chemicals”. If it has a non-zero mass, it’s made of chemicals.

  • Nick Gotts


    Most human-produced food additives are chemically “organic.”

    Which is of course completely irrelevant in the current context.

    The term “organic” is not defined by law or regulations FDA enforces

    Maybe that’s because the FDA is not the relevant government department; it’s the Department of Agriculture. Took me all of 10 seconds to find that.

  • I noticed not long ago that the yogurt I was eating came in a container marked with the assurance that it contains “only natural ingredients”. I took that to mean only that it lacked any supernatural ingredients. So, y’know, it was unicorn safe yogurt.

  • Synfandel

    ethanmyserson wrote, ‘I noticed not long ago that the yogurt I was eating came in a container marked with the assurance that it contains “only natural ingredients”.’

    This means that it was picked form a yogurt tree.

  • busterggi

    ethanmyerson: And yet products containing supernatural ingredients also sell well, just look at all the athlete endorsed ‘magnetic’ bracelets and ‘copper-infused’ stretchy braces. They aren’t outwardly called supernatural but its implied in their advertisment.

  • lofgren

    Most human-produced food additives are chemically “organic.”

    Which is of course completely irrelevant in the current context.

    The context of words influences their meaning? This makes the world so much more confusing! How am I supposed to be an obnoxious pedant now?

  • John Horstman

    @eric #13: No, he means “organic” has a specific legal definition when applied to food packaging, which it does (as Nick Gotts pointed out, though that definition is not what many people think it is). And the current definition in the unrelated context you raised – chemistry jargon (“contains carbon”) – isn’t the original meaning, nor does it have any special claim to being somehow ‘more correct’. The original meaning is something like “related to an organism or living system”.

  • Nice Ogress

    I can only presume that all the angry chemists who rail against using ‘organic’ in a non-chemical sense also rail against the word ‘basic’ when applied to any noun not proved to be within the correct pH parameters.

    I mean, anything else would just be unnecessary vitriol, right?

  • spamamander, internet amphibian

    The problem is, even the Dept of Ag definitions of what can be labeled “organic” are useless. If just one aspect of the farm falls under very liberal guidelines of what constitutes organic farming, they can label their product “organic”. Some even use chemical pesticides. I’m unwilling to pay a premium for what may or may not be more environmentally friendly. The exception is products from local farmers’ markets where I can find out for sure where the food comes from and how it is produced.

    The sad thing is as well, is if we went entirely organic agriculture, we would not produce enough to feed the population. Even if we eliminated growing crops to feed to livestock.

  • sugarfrosted

    @22 It’s still not cut and dry if you could even consider something like the lack of genetic modification, lack of chemical pesticides, ect. would be better for the environment. More water, more farm land needed for agriculture isn’t really good for the environment either. In California the usage of more water by humans could push quite a few biomes over the edge.

    To expand a bit, quite a few of the pesticides that organic growers are allowed to use are in fact quite a bit more harmful than some of the ones that other growers are allowed to use. In the US the “organic” growers lobbied to make the labeling essentially meaningless to increase their own profits.

  • khms

    Over here, that trend has been partially countered by inventing specific marks that have a specific definition (and later, concentrating that into fewer of these marks so consumers have to learn less). Those marks belong to an issuing organization, which can thus control what it actually means (and can sue anyone who uses it without following the conditions).

    Some of these marks are, of course, meaningless. However, those don’t seem to last too long. And obviously, you should always learn what a mark actually means.

    Of course, on this specific area, these days there are EU-controlled marks and rules for using the related words, so we don’t have your government non-control problems in that regard anymore 🙂

    Similarly, we finally have rules about health claims. Strangely enough, lots of products recently lost any health claims they had …

  • eric

    @15 and others – fair criticism, I agree that the ‘organic’ label is not meaningless due to the chemical definition of the term, and that the Dept. of Ag has set out more stringent requirements for its use.

    However, those requirements are still pretty useless. Not only are they so complicated and arcane that very few members of the public will know what they mean, they contain at least two significant exemptions (and that was what i could find in my own five minutes, Nick – maybe you can find more). First, FDA doesn’t certify or check ony any business reporting $5k or less profit on “organic” products. So, spamander, those local farmers’ markets you go to? They can probably stick the label “organic” on anything they want. The second laughably large exemption is that a state official can allow a corporation to call its stuff “organic” without meeting any of USDA’s standards if that business has suffered damage from “drought, wind, flood, excessive moisture, hail, tornado, earthquake, fire, or other business interruption.” What a whopper. What agribusiness doesn’t lose some dollars to one of those things every year? The wind blew my sign over. I had to spend $10 to replace it. Call the governer! Seems pretty obvious how this could work: local agribusiness lobbies politician, politician declare variance, agribusiness does whatever it wants and gets to label its products ‘organic,’ and uses the profits to lobby the politician for more favors. And round and round we go, with the business and the politician profiting at the expense of duping the public.

  • freehand

    So, natural bread was speared on the run and brought home to feed the family or tribe?


    If it ain’t picked from a tree or stabbed with a sharp stick, it ain’t natural. If you’re considering whether or not it’s healthy, that’s a tad more complicated.


    And if pesticides are used, they’re chemical, whether manufactured by Ortho (“Maker of Life-Begone®!”) or brewed from leaves off a bush.

  • lofgren

    Considering that many consumers seem to think that “organic” means “magically super healthy and also good for the environment and also locally sourced and also polycultured and also makes you a better person so you can sneer at everybody around you,” you can hardly fault the USDA for failing to meet consumer’s expectations with their definition of the term.